This Colorado Operator Is Qualified for Management. He Prefers to Stay With Operations for the Challenges It Brings.

Robert Magee acquired the skills to function as an operator in responsible charge at two large water plants. He became a strong advocate of a highly cross-trained team.

This Colorado Operator Is Qualified for Management. He Prefers to Stay With Operations for the Challenges It Brings.

The Marston Water Treatment plant staff includes, from left, Jeffery Thomas, water treatment lead, South System; Jason Warwick, water treatment plant supervisor, South System; Robert Magee, operator in responsible charge; Russell Plakke, water treatment plant supervisor, South System; and Mary Thompson, water treatment lead, South System.

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It wasn’t enough for Robert “Rob” Magee to master one of the two treatment plants in Denver Water’s South System.

Variety was part of the appeal of working in the water sector. So while functioning as an operator in responsible charge at the utility’s 280 mgd Foothills Treatment Plant, Magee wanted a new challenge. Five years ago, on his request, he transferred to the 200 mgd Marston Treatment Plant and learned the process there.

He used what he learned to share best practices between the two facilities, improving efficiency and performance at both. Today he holds the ORC designation at both plants and is instrumental in cross-training operators and asset management team members alike.

“I really like operating the plants,” says Magee, winner of the 2021 Ralph M. Leidholdt Award for operator excellence from Rocky Mountain Section AWWA. “I’ve been asked to step into a management position, which would be more of a desk job. I’m open to other opportunities, but right now I’m looking to stick with operations. I enjoy spending time with the new technicians coming on and showing them the ropes.”


Denver Water gets its source from snowmelt in the Colorado Rockies. Its North and South systems serve 1.5 million residents. Magee was introduced to the utility while working toward an associate degree in accounting at Red Rock Community College in Denver. He never finished those studies.

Wanting to move out of his parents’ house, he asked longtime friend Jason Warwick (now an operations supervisor with Denver Water) for advice. Warwick’s father, Kim, then a Denver Water staff member, helped him get a part-time summer job. “Once on board, I was able to bid on internal jobs,” Magee recalls. “So I started bidding on all kinds and I got a meter reading job.”

About six months later, plans for a remote meter reading system made his job obsolete, so Magee moved to the Foothills plant in a utility worker slot, “which was basically a glorified janitor position.” About a year later he got a job in operations, obtained his licensing, and moved steadily up the ladder, to lead technician and ORC, a role that requires a Class A Water Treatment license and thorough knowledge of plant processes.

His move to the Marston facility, after 20 years at Foothills, has made him valuable as one of few qualified for the ORC role at both facilities. “My ability to go back and forth gives Denver Water quite a few options,” Magee says. 


The Foothills plant draws water from the Strontia Springs Reservoir on the South Platte River. The Marston plant draws from below the dam and from a lake downstream; at any time it can use one source or the other or blend the two, “depending on the water quality we want to achieve at the front end of the plant,” Magee says. Water from the lake tends to be more challenging to treat because it is more alkaline and has higher mineral content.

Both plants use conventional treatment. “The biggest difference at Foothills is that the eight two-level flocculation and sedimentation basins are only 2.3 million gallons apiece,” Magee says. “The water rushes through so fast that we don’t get as much settling as we would prefer. Marston has six 5 million-gallon single-level basins; that makes it easier to achieve the final settled water quality. Filter run times are quite a bit longer at Marston. Other than that the processes and the chemicals we use are the same.”

At Foothills in cold weather, alkalinity falls and there are manganese issues. “We used to have a lime system but we got rid of it,” Magee says. “That presents a challenge because the absence of lime limits our ability to coagulate at a higher dose during spring runoff.” Potassium permanganate and a small dose of chlorine are added to treat for manganese.

Both plants have chlorine contact basins for disinfection after the multimedia filters; chlorine is added at the front and back ends of those basins. At the far end, some liquid ammonium sulfate is added to help maintain a chlorine residual in the distribution system.


Magee’s switch to the Marston plant turned out to benefit both treatment facilities. “I thought there would be quite a big difference going to Marston,” he recalls.

“There are a few differences, but what I thought was going to be the biggest challenge has actually been really good. There were some things we were doing at Foothills that we weren’t doing at Marston, and vice versa. So we could pull things we were doing at one plant and make them work at the other. That made the treatment and the working conditions better.”

For example, Magee discovered that the standard operating procedure documents weren’t uniform: “When someone came from one plant to the other, it was kind of foreign to them; it didn’t look the same. So we standardized how they looked — the layout and the descriptions. That made it easier for people to come over and train.

“Another challenge was trying to get people out of their comfort zone and go over to the other plant and train. We’ve been doing that the last couple of years, and we’re getting quite a few operators up to speed; they’re going to be able to become ORCs.”

The value of cross-training became abundantly clear during a blizzard in 2021, when operators became stranded and couldn’t get to the Foothills plant. Although scheduled to work at Marston that day, Magee managed to make a two-hour trip to Foothills, keep that plant online, and relieve operators who had been working 12-hour shifts.

Some cross-training also goes on between the plant operators and the asset management team that takes care of both plants: “Sometimes when a plant is shut down for maintenance, the operators come over to the asset management side and help work on the equipment.”

Training in general is a priority at Denver Water. The utility pays for operators to attend training courses sponsored by the AWWA, community colleges or other providers. Most of the training is provided in-house as newer team members accompany senior technicians on their daily routines.

“When events happen at the plants, that’s the best time for training,” Magee says. “When there’s an upset condition, when something goes wrong with a pump or something breaks, they can see what you’re doing to address the issue.”

Plant leaders also have created PowerPoint presentations that break down all areas of the process, from source water to finished water. These enable newer operators to learn on their own. They can also take a laptop with them and watch and listen to a PowerPoint while checking out or working on a piece of equipment.


Magee’s work often includes working on special projects around his day-to-day duties. One project about six years ago involved addressing the cost of electricity: by shifting pump operations and filter washing to night hours with lower utility prices, the plant team reduced monthly bills significantly.

Early in his tenure at the Marston plant, Magee led the creation of an SOP that helped operators improve the control of valves regulating water flows and levels at the front end of the plant and on the filter side. Last year Magee became part of an operational analyzer team, whose members verify the accuracy of all online analyzers weekly and monthly to meet regulatory requirements, adjust flows to the analyzers and clean and maintain them as needed. For any major issues, a work order is written for the process control team to address. Data invalidations are generated when data gets out of its normal range; grab samples are taken to verify the actual data.

Magee is the first to admit he’s not the sole source of good ideas; leading a high-performing team means being open to suggestions from anyone. “I may think there’s only one way to do something, because that’s how I’ve always done it,” Magee says. “But there have been instances where a younger operator said, ‘Why are you doing it like that? Why aren’t you doing it like this?’ We’ve tried it, it works great, and it becomes our new way of doing things.

“When a situation arises, it’s important to have a game plan and to have trained and practiced. So for example, if something bad happens with the chlorine system, we have a plan and are ready to go right away. We can tell the operators what they need to do and give them the direction they need to fix the problem as soon as possible.”

As for screening potential new hires, Magee has successfully tried a procedure less formal than sitting the person down in front of a panel to answer questions. The process started with a brief panel discussion; then Magee led each candidate on a tour of the plant.

“As a veteran, I got to ask pointed questions in a more relaxed environment,” he recalls. “They opened up a lot more, and the people who were really interested and had done some homework about the industry had questions for me. A number of those people were hired, and they turned into great operators.”


Magee’s efforts have earned recognition for the facilities he helps run. The Marston plant received a 2018 Outstanding Large Water Treatment Plant Award from the Rocky Mountain Section AWWA and a 2018 Directors Award from the Partnership for Safe Water.

For the Directors Award, he gathered data to document turbidity at various process stages to show that the plant was consistently meeting Partnership standards. Source water turbidity at Marston ranges from 1.0 to 1.5 NTU; finished water regularly achieves 0.05 NTU or less.

Magee credits much of his success to his colleagues, most notably the South System Treatment Operations and Asset Management Teams, and specifically Patty Brubaker, manager of South System asset management; and Jason Warwick and Ed Rubenstein, South System operation supervisors: “I really appreciate all of their support, guidance, leadership and, most important, their friendship over the past 25 years of my career.

“When I started out I thought, ‘I’m just going to work here for a summer and make a little money while I’m getting my degree.’ Then I got interested in the industry and all its different aspects. There’s a mechanical side, you get to use math and science a lot. There’s something new every day. I really love the challenges.” 


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